What to Tell Your Boss if You Have Cancer

What to Tell Your Boss if You Have Cancer

You have rights when it comes to communicating a diagnosis

A manager and employee discussion cancer and healthcare issues.

If you’re faced with communicating a cancer diagnosis to an employer, your head might be spinning with questions. Will my boss and co-workers treat me differently? If I need to take time off work for treatment, will I potentially lose my job?

If you’re nervous, know that there are laws in place meant to protect you. Your number-one priority should be your health during this time, so don’t fret too much about losing your position or having it change dramatically. What’s more, you’re under no obligation to share your diagnosis, so the decision to tell your boss (and co-workers) is entirely up to you.

Unsure of how, or if, you should reveal your cancer to your employer? Rebecca V. Nellis, executive director of Cancer and Careers, an advocacy organization, shares these tips.

1. Understand Your Rights

Before deciding to reveal your diagnosis to an employer, it’s important to understand what benefits are available to you under the law, says Nellis. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act , cancer patients may have federal protection against discrimination in employment. This means that it is illegal to be discriminated against, because of your disease, during hiring or firing processes, promotions, training opportunities, and other work-related activities.

In addition to the ADA, you might also be eligible for the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If you qualify, it allows you to take up to 12 weeks of leave in a year that is both job-protected and health insurance-protected. However, you are typically only eligible if you’ve worked at your company for at least one year. And if your company has fewer than 50 employees, your employer may not be required to abide by the FMLA. If you’re unsure, talk to your human resources (HR) department.

For both ADA and FMLA leave, you may need to provide your company with additional information to support these requests, says Nellis. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean revealing every last detail about everything related to your cancer diagnosis.”

What’s more, is there might be additional policies that your workplace offers that might be helpful. Look in your company handbook or reach out to HR to see if you have any other resources.

2. Find Out How Your Treatment will Affect Your Job

Before you tell anyone at work, it’s important to discuss with your doctor the ways that your treatment plan will affect your day-to-day job responsibilities. Will you need to make certain lifestyle changes? What are the best- and worst-case scenarios for recovery from surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation? How much time off are you likely to need, and when will you start to feel the effects of chemotherapy or radiation?

3. Consider What You Might Need to Work Effectively

Employers that are bound by the ADA are required to provide adjustments and modifications (otherwise known as reasonable accommodation), to ensure that you’re able to work properly—that is, if you decide to continue working while undergoing treatment.

According to Nellis, these accommodations are often more wide-ranging than you might think. “Your employer could be required to move your office because the smell from the cafeteria was exacerbating your nausea,” Nellis says. “Or, you could potentially have a printer placed closer to your desk so you don’t have to walk up and down stairs.”

4. Think About the Type of Relationship You Have with Your Boss and Co-workers

Although the law is on your side when it comes to working while you have cancer, you might want to consider the culture of your company before you decide to share your diagnosis or not.

Your work might be formal and not warm, but your team could be awesome,” says Nellis. In that case, you might feel supported and comfortable being open about your diagnosis and treatment at work.

In addition, consider thinking back to how your boss or co-workers treated other employees when they shared that they had a health issue. Was the rest of your company supportive, or did they complain? If you haven’t been on the job long enough to get a sense of your workplace’s would-be reaction, Nellis recommends doing a bit of online research. Although workplace review websites can often have sensationalized reviews from former disgruntled employees, it’s important to take stock—just take everything you read with a grain of salt.

5. Decide Who You Want to Tell

You can choose whether to tell everyone at work, or just a few select people—like your supervisor, HR department, and cubicle-mate, or no one at all. If you believe your treatment will interfere with your job, or you’ll need help with your work, it may be necessary to talk to your supervisor.

Keep in mind that if you decide to tell your supervisor, company policy may require them to tell HR. And on the flip side, if you go straight to telling HR, they may need to tell your supervisor. HR may also need to tell your supervisor of your diagnosis if you request reasonable accommodations, such as a schedule change or the ability to work from home. Generally under the ADA, there is an expectation that supervisors will keep your medical condition confidential.

6. Prepare Yourself Mentally

As with any cancer conversation, you can’t control what other people will say or how they’ll react. Prepare for misconceptions. Prepare for emotions. Prepare for responses far and wide,” urges Nellis. “Don’t go in and be shocked if someone says the wrong thing.”

7. Devise a Work Plan (but Don’t Make it Set in Stone)

While you might want to assure your work that business will continue as usual, resist the urge to declare strict timelines for your cancer treatment and recovery. There are no guarantees that treatment will go as planned. You may experience side effects that you weren’t expecting, or a timeline may suddenly get extended. In other words, be prepared to make changes.

Disclosing a cancer diagnosis is ultimately up to you, says Nellis, but fully thinking it through is an important part of the decision. “It’s a really nuanced conversation with one’s self before they turn outward toward their workplace,” she says.